The Wilderness Within The Wilderness
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Milk Thistle: An “Invasive Species”
Milk Thistle: An “Invasive Species”
The town of Katoomba is located within the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park. The park is omnipresent, visible from almost everywhere in the town and easily accessible from hundreds of official and unofficial entry points, including many backyards which simply lead directly into bushland. The lines between the urban and wild areas are often blurred to the point of being non-existent. Katoomba and the National Park are deeply connected. Inseparable.
Early in its colonial history, much of Katoomba’s landscape was altered to give the place some European flavour, which was considered to be a more palatable and familiar alpine style to settlers and their descendants. Native trees such as eucalypts were replaced with various imported conifers, many of which still stand today. More recently the local council and parks department have worked to try and reverse this trend, creating management policies for private gardens and regeneration programs for much of the forest that surrounds the town. Surveys are routinely carried out around homes, during which pink tags are tied around trees and plants that are deemed to be threatening to the environment in some way, marking them for removal.
There is no question that invasive species can present a catastrophic danger to the native ecology. One only needs to look at Australia’s feral cat epidemic which is seeing millions of birds and mammals decimated each day, or the coral eating Crown-of-thorns starfish which is causing havoc on the Great Barrier Reef and has contributed to its ongoing destruction. However these species and others like them (such as those in Katoomba, destined to be pink tagged) do make for fascinating case studies, not just from an ecological perspective but a cultural perspective. The very idea of a weed is a cultural idea, not a biological one: a weed is simply an undesirable plant, or as London’s Kew Gardens defined them in the 1960s: “plants where we do not want them.”
Questions begin to arise here - what is it that leads us to view a particular plant as a pest, and what could possibly change that perception?
Most gardens in Katoomba contain non-native species, many of which could be categorised as ecologically harmful, so then what compels us to cultivate one and eradicate another? The desire to turn back the clock on the arboreal character of Katoomba is only a recent occurrence, which itself demonstrates that the way that we see and interact with the landscape is constantly changing. These trends are partly driven by science, but they are also influenced by tastes and emotions.
It’s unlikely that Katoomba will ever rid itself of all its invasive species. The problem is too widespread, nature a force too powerful and unyielding. Only so much can be done. To see evidence of just how tenacious many of these interlopers are, you simply need to visit one of the many vacant lots around town - there you will discover some assortment of the plants facing eradication, quietly growing in large numbers, indifferent to the surrounding forces that would happily drive them to extinction. These spaces are unplanned collaborations between people and nature, generated by a simple formula of time plus disuse. The writer and psycho-geographer Wilfried Hou Je Bek defines these places and others like them as cryptoforests. They are ghettos for undesirable ecologies, filled with plants that have been chased out of parks and gardens. They find refuge and thrive in spaces that are unused, undeveloped, or abandoned. Zones of absence, rewilded. While these types of spaces can be found elsewhere, even in neighbouring cities and suburbs, they hold a special potency here in the national park. They are a wilderness within a wilderness.
I have come to refer to them as noxious meadows.
Noxious Meadows Monogram
Noxious Meadows Alphabet
Noxious Meadows Flag
Noxious Meadows Prayer Flag
Noxious Meadows Prayer Flags
Noxious Meadows Exhibition Poster
In Katoomba these noxious meadows usually contain various grasses (often a combination of natives and invasive species such as coolatai) and exotic plants such as holly, buddleja, and blackberry. Within the undergrowth you will also usually find assorted pieces of refuse such as rusting tins and weathered plastics - ideal for urban archeology. These noxious meadows are interesting to me for two main reasons. The first is that I have come to find them to be strangely calm and even pleasing places to be in. They offer a rare sort of free space, an urban oasis that is uncommercialised and refreshingly non-functional. The second is that they are almost like living laboratories: containing feral ecosystems that offer insights into how the various plants within work, as well possible futures that may play out due to environmental mismanagement. Through these spaces we get a small glimpse at the post-human world, where any gap, any crack in the urbanised landscape will be reclaimed by nature - the irony being that many of the plants so effectively colonising these spaces are only here because of our intervention. Sadly, these so-called weeds also usually appear in order to heal soils that have been degraded to regenerate them and replace lost nutrients, which only emphasises how unfairly they are misunderstood and unappreciated.
Blackberry from the field
After some preliminary explorations of these spaces, some of the further questions that have occured to me are: Where have these plants come from? How have they made their journey here? What is it about their new environment, or the plants themselves, that allow them to thrive here despite so many attempts to eradicate them with poison and physical removal? And finally, what benefits might their existence here offer?
Through a series of surveys and studies, Noxious Meadows will observe these questions, and document findings through publication design and supporting materials, which may include field guides, maps, drawings, writing, and photographs. Through both scientific methodologies and artistic interpretation, this project will seek an outcome that both engages the viewer and invites them to consider these plants and spaces in a new light.
The exhibition ran from 7th July — 13th August at Platform Gallery, Katoomba.
Milk Thisle gone to seed